State Attorney General Not A Fan of Mini Sessions

The budget for DeKalb Schools E-SPLOST projects is in trouble. DeKalb Schools Board of Education is having illegal, behind closed doors, meetings to discuss the E-SPLOST project budget assessment and hear new planning options. Potentially, all options are on the table including redistricting and cutting projects.

Meeting Invitation:
To: Members of Board of Education
From: Mr. Dan Drake, Interim Chief Operations Officer

This communications serves to confirm your availability for a mini-session for the purpose to discuss the increased cost estimate for E-SPLOST IV and E-SPLOST V and a few options for a plan of action to address the increased cost estimates.

Kindly, select the date and time that best accommodates your schedule to confirm your slot. Please be reminded that no more than 3 individuals per session to avoid a quorum. If your schedule cannot accommodate a face-to-face session, let us know and we will arrange for a webinar session.

• Tuesday, March 19, 10:30-12:00 p.m.
• Tuesday, March 19, 1:00-2:30 p.m.
• Wednesday, March 20, 1:30-3:00 p.m.


Richard Belcher with WSB ran a story Friday, State attorney general’s office criticizes DeKalb school board plan to hold secret meetings about spending. Belcher spoke with the President of the First Amendment Foundation who agreed that “this is a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act.”


The Office of the Attorney General has weighed in. His office sent the school district this message earlier this week.

Open Meetings Complaints about the DeKalb County Board of Education

Chris Carr

Chris Carr
Georgia State Attorney General

Dear Ms. Gupta:

I am writing to you to follow up on the discussions we had about the “mini-sessions” held by members of the DeKalb County Board of Education. Based on the information that has been forwarded to our office, these “mini-sessions” were held to allow board members to discuss E-SPLOST (and other school district business). Board members were told that no more than three board members should attend each session in order to “avoid a quorum.” I understand from our conversation that it is expected that the information discussed in the “mini-sessions” will be discussed again by the full board in a public meeting.

I acknowledge that the Open Meetings Act does exempt some types of gatherings of board members from the definition of a “meeting” and there are some curcumstances where board members could gather without the intention of evading or avoiding the requirements of the Act. However, that does not mean I condone the actions of the board in these circumstances, particularly as it relates to the specific statements that the intent is to avoid having a quorum present. The intent of the General Assembly in passing the Act is to provide strict requirements ensuring that the public’s business is conducted in an open and accessible manner. Not only does such a requirement permit the people to know what actions their public servants are undertaking, but it also fosters public confidence in their leaders and the decisions that they make. The failure to serve those underlyning purposes leads to mistrust and controversy. Stating that the “mini-session” are being scheduled in a way that “avoids a quorum” strongly suggests to the public that the sessions are being used for discussions or deliverations that the public would expect to be conducted in a public meeting.

The Act states, in its definitions of a meeting: “This subparagraph’s exclusions from the definition of the term ‘meeting’ shall not apply if it is shown that the primary purpose of the gathering or gatherings is to evade or avoid the requirements for conducting a meeting while discussing or conducting official business.” O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1(a)(3). It is hard not to draw a conclusion that the sole purpose of the mini-sessions was intended to avoid compliance with the Act and holding these meetings in the open. If this is so, then no exception would apply in this case.

The Open Meetings Act is one of our public officials’ most valuable tools in communicating with and serving the people they represent. I am also mindful that the Act was not designed nor intended to prevent every every possible contact or conversation between two public officials outside of a formal meeting. There are certainly times when such communications may very well be appropriate. However, a public official is also a trustee of the people and must be judicious in the exercise of his or her privileges and authority. Matters that involve critical or deliberative processes on issues of public concern are best decided when they are open and available to public review. Taking steps to avoid having discussion of public business outside of a public meeting can only benefit the agency and the public it serves, in fulfillment of both the intent and spirit of the Act. It is therefore my sincere hope that the board will in the future carry out not only the letter of the law but adhere to the spirit of the law as well.

Although our office cannot provide legal advice to local governments, we are happy to discuss Open Government issues with public officials and citizens and to provide resources and information about the Acts. If you, the board, or district staff members have questions about how board members can meet with staff members while complying with the Open Meetings Act, please call our office.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Colangelo
Assistant Attorney General

22 responses to “State Attorney General Not A Fan of Mini Sessions

  1. They don’t get it. Won’t get it. Never will get it. And don’t care.

  2. But Stan, my hat’s off to you for trying so hard year after year.

  3. Thank you, Stan, for refusing to participate in illegal activities and “secret” proceedings. I’d love to know what is being presented and disclosed at these “non” meetings!

  4. Stan:
    Thanks for being the grownup in the room. The one with integrity.
    I’ve emailed the full Board, relating my disgust with this way of doing business.

  5. dekalbteacher

    Stan,

    Is it correct to say there is really no oversight for anything Dekalb does financially or organizationally?

    Taxpayers approved e-splost monies. Now the district gets to spend that money with more freedom than taxpayers may have imagined, correct?

    Dekalb can set the salaries as long as it pays teachers the state minimum. Most of the administration salaries are taken from other funds, so there is no outside body making sure Dekalb isn’t over-paying its administrators is there?

    Dekalb receives a lot of Title 1 money and some Title 2 money. Besides submitting paperwork to indicate how the district has spent or will spend the money, is there anyone from the state or federal government to do quality control or return on the investment? The recent AJC article about maintenance should have everyone thinking about all the other companies and individuals getting public money to do a job or some of a job.

    No one at the state is asking for evaluations of administrators outside the school buildings, so the district can do what it wants when determining job effectiveness, correct? Principals evaluate assistant principals. Regional superintendents evaluate principals. I’m guessing this works in everyone’s favor when mistakes are made. Not sure how much it works for students.

    Dekalb is a strategic waiver district, so Dekalb gets to decide how it’s going to attempt to improve things. Then Dekalb gets to submit whatever it wants to prove it made this attempt, correct?The fact that the CCRPI scores were tallied differently seems to have gotten the district off the hook for everything this year.

    Scary.

  6. Mr. Jester,

    Thank you for continuing to inform us of the concerns involving the Dekalb County School System. At different levels, I am astounded, disappointed, and angered.

    Additionally, thank you for your position as per regards this issue. I admire your decision.

    mike p

  7. Frustrated DeKalb Parent

    Thank you, Stan, for continuing to stand up for what is right.

  8. Keep pushing… we must expose the problems or things will never change.

  9. Concerned stakeholders, please contact Richard Belcher (Richard.Belcher@wsbtv.com) and Asst. AG Jennifer Colangelo (jcolangelo@law.ga.gov) to share your concern about the mini-sessions the BOE has. As Parent says – keep pushing.

  10. BarbaraFountain

    Stan I would like to ask why? My daughter has been in DEKALB 22 yrsas para in Evansdale and nowPleasantdale. She did not receive the raise but the new para in the room received and it because starting salary was so low but when you daughter began in the county at CaryReynolds she had to begin on bottom of the pay scale. How can she not receive a raise, her dedication to the county, working in special education with young students is hard work. She won’t complain but I wish to better understand her not receiving the raise! Can you find the answer for me?

  11. @BarbaraFountain, I believe paras are classified employees. All classified salary schedules are currently being reviewed.

  12. Stan – Just a question here. AJC says these meetings have been going on for years. Why is it NOW that you are identifying the illegality of the meetings? Have you been participating in these illegal meetings for years? What’s changed? Seems a little fishy that all of a sudden you’re finding the right path.

  13. @Bill, You asked good questions …
    Q1. Why is it NOW that you are identifying the illegality of the meetings?
    Q2. Have you been participating in these illegal meetings for years?
    Q3. What’s changed?

    I was going to write more about your questions in this post, but I wanted to focus on the meeting and the AG. I’ll probably eventually write a post about it … here is what I’m thinking.

    You’ll notice from the AG’s letter, this isn’t black and white. When a board member met with an administrator way back when, it was to get a question answered or something innocuous like signing up for health insurance.

    We only meet once a month, board members started asking for more information from staff to come out of these meetings. There is a policy or norm somewhere that says board members must receive the same information. Eventually, important information is starting to come from these meetings … so the the chair and/or superintendent decided that this information needed to made available to everyone.

    The meetings started shifting from the CFO arguing over whether or not the electricity bill is accrued or not … to full blown meetings about the budget, org charts, operations etc. As I grew uncomfortable, I consulted our lawyers who insisted these meetings were legal.

    As the board started doing more and more business in these private meetings, I grew more insistent that we were approaching or crossing the line. I’d publish those discussions we’ve had, but those have been deemed privileged and confidential.

    Discussing HR salary schedule debacle, the privileged procurement assessment and the E-SPLOST budget implosion are way over the line. I finally told the board and asked the chair to get an opinion from the state AG. I reached out to the state Attorney General for an opinion on these meetings.

    This is where we stand today.

  14. Stan, are these SPLOST mini-meetings proceeding on in spite of the letter from the asst. AG? If so, that shows a clear disregard for the intent of the law. Who can hold the BOE accountable for this – it seems the BOE and admin march on no matter what the public says.

  15. According to a response from Richard Belcher, the BOE intends to go ahead with the “mini sessions” despite the criticism from the Attorney General’s office. If this issue means anything to you, please contact the Board and let them know what you think. I doubt that any of them monitor Stan’s blog.
    Thanks, again, Stan for your leadership!

  16. WOW….just WOW. What good does contacting the Board do…if the AG doesn’t get their attention, lowly stakeholders who have been constantly rebuffed won’t get their attention either. Once again, it feels like we need someone to come in and rescue us and our tax dollars from the admin and BOE.

  17. concerned citizen

    This BOE, like all the other boards I can remember in DeKalb, is out of control and are tripping out on their egos and deep need for power. Why am I not surprised that they are going on with their secret plans to further(if possible) run the school system into a deep, deep hole? Stan Jester is the only functioning member of the board. At this point, what choice does he have except to attend these secret meetings? There is not one single part of this school system that works as it should. I include every department and component and almost every school. Can someone tell me who Dan Drake is and what’s he got to do with this? We need the Gov. to clear house again.

  18. https://www.ajc.com/news/local-education/dekalb-schools-mini-sessions-conflict-with-open-meetings-act/yycXUdPFouV9wt9y5nlgrL/

    Board member Stan Jester said the meetings, to discuss plans to shift education special purpose local option sales tax funds, did not sit right with him, so he took the matter to the state’s Attorney General.

    “If they open them up to the public, that would at least almost be legal,” Jester said. “I’m going to say these meetings are open to the public and that the public should attend.”

  19. Remember that the Chief Legal Officer for DCSD resigned during January of 2019. The reason given was retirement, so maybe that was entirely expected. But the timing makes one think.

    Further, a quick search of PATS doesn’t show a job posting for a new Chief Legal Officer.

    In fact, a quick search of PATS didn’t show a job posting for a new Chief Operations Officer or a new Chief IT Officer or a Chief Human Capital Management Officer.

    It’s hard to see how a $1.8 BILLION dollar operation like DCSD can function without these key personnel.

  20. https://www.facebook.com/jessica.szilagyi/posts/10213870751219365

    via Facebook:
    The Attorney General sent a letter to the Evans Board of Education last week telling them that their meeting policies were not in compliance with state law and violated the Open Meetings Act.

    The Attorney for the BOE sent a letter back today saying they will just have to “agree to disagree.”

    Those were his exact words. In quotes.

  21. You know that absolutely miserable part of the drive to Savannah and there are exits without gas stations. And then another 20 miles and you thank God that the exit has a gas station. Take a right and drive thirty miles into the woods, you’ll find Claxton.

    If the AG sues and has to travel there, it’s an economic boom to have visitors. If they have to come to Atlanta, it’s a party. That’s a win-win scenario in South Georgia. They are at the coffee shop this morning with all of them trying to pronounce ‘Szilagyi’. 🙂

  22. I hope the AG takes a stand, though. Otherwise, it sounds like anyone can just thumb their nose at sunshine laws in Georgia.

    I’ve heard the phrase “local control is alive and well,” and this just reinforces that statement.

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